1950s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, Japanese cinema, Religious

The Birth of Japan (1959)

Nippon Tanjō ; aka The Three Treasures
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Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenwriters: Ryuzo Kikushima, Toshio Yasumi

By Roderick Heath

There’s no shortage of movies that borrow from and remix mythology. That sort of thing has been the backbone of film industries, from westerns to Italian peplum or sword-and-sandal films and Chinese wu xia action flicks, through to fare like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and superhero blockbusters, all of which depend to some extend on appropriating and recontextualising themes, images, and ideas harvested from the most ancient storytelling forms. And yet, serious, faithful, accomplished screen versions of authentic mythology aren’t that common. The best-known examples include the Greek mythology vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), takes on Arthurian legend like Excalibur (1981), Biblical tales like Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Fritz Lang’s monumental version of Die Nibelungen (1924). After watching Die Nibelungen a few years ago I became interested in finding other ambitious, scrupulous takes on such stories, particularly from beyond Hollywood and Western European cinema. Making these kinds of movie usually demands money and resources beyond most filmmakers. The Soviet Union produced a handful of authentic takes on national folklore, like Ilya Muromets (1956). The Indian and Chinese film industries have produced their own derivations of works like the Ramayana and Journey to the West. But most of these remain fairly obscure outside their homelands.
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The Birth of Japan is an intriguing, hugely enjoyable example of such mythological filmmaking produced with heft and class, recounting some fundamental tales of Shinto creation myths and local cultural traditions, given a makeover in keeping with the epic movie styles of the 1950s and the social upheavals that had been gripping Japan since the end of World War II. Purportedly made as a home-grown answer to The Ten CommandmentsThe Birth of Japan was a major production for Toho Studios, which hired the proven hit-making team of director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki came from a stage background and had been a child actor, before starting his film career at Nikkatsu Studio in the 1920s and debuting as a director at the age of 22. By the 1950s he had become one of the country’s most prolific and admired commercial filmmakers, alternating big-budget historical dramas with smaller films depicting working-class characters and children. The first of the two versions he made of Life of Matsu the Untamed, also called The Rickshaw Man, released in 1943, has been voted one of the ten best Japanese films of all time, whilst his second, released in 1958, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Inagaki captured an Oscar in 1955 for the first instalment of his highly successful trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, also starring Mifune, and the two men were just coming off another notable collaboration, Samurai Saga (1958), a cross-cultural adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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Inagaki’s career faltered eventually, for similar reasons to those Akira Kurosawa confronted in the 1970s, as his brand of filmmaking was held to be dated and too expensive, and unlike Kurosawa his story didn’t have a happy ending, as he became embittered and drank heavily up until his death at 74 in 1980. Inagaki became an increasingly stylised filmmaker in his later career, his theatrical roots flaunted as he incorporated sequences of song and dance with a quality akin to pan-cultural curation, and happily used the lush colour of the period to realise an affectedly illustrative style in strong contrast to the crisp, subtly stylised naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi’s late work and Kurosawa’s cool, stark expanses. The Birth of Japan gave free rein to such an approach, as the film unfolds through counterpointing Shinto creation myths with the more worldly narrative of Prince Yamato Takeru, tracing the legendary divine origins of the Japanese Imperial family and some of the iconography attendant to the royal throne. The three treasures mentioned in one of the film’s alternate titles and featured in the several vignettes are still part of the closely-guarded coronation regalia of the Emperors, only ever glimpsed by the Emperor and a select number of Shinto priests: the sword Kusanagi or “Grasscutter,” the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
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The film opens with the creation of the world and humanity as recounted into Shinto belief. One intriguing aspect of The Birth of Japan from a western perspective is how familiar some aspects of the legends found within are, from its Adam and Eve-like first lovers to the martial drama of national unification revolving around singular magical swords. The opening depicts the formation of heaven in the midst of a chaotic universe, and the advent of the pantheon on Shinto gods and goddesses. Two of them, the male and female gods Izanagi and Izanami (Shizuko Muramatsu), are assigned to try and make the drowned world below heaven into something solid and inhabitable. Astride a rainbow that bridges the two realms, Izanagi stirs forms of boiling mass to emerge from the waters by waving a spear. The gods visit the resulting land form, called Onokoro. Finding themselves defined in mortal form as they descend to Earth, they perform the first ever marriage rite by circling the island. Eons later, this tale is recounted by an old woman storyteller (Haruko Sugimura) to the citizens of Yamato, a kingdom on Honshu named after the clan of the area’s rulers, who would later become the imperial dynasty of the whole of Japan. The storyteller’s recitations of the creation tales contrast and punctuate the central drama, which involves the Prince of Yamato, Ōsu (Mifune), son of the elderly Emperor Keikō (Ganjirô Nakamura).
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Returning from a successful hunt, Prince Ōsu is told his older brother (Hajime Izu) is cavorting with one of his father’s serving girls in a gross breach of family honour. Finding them together in a hut, the Prince brutalises his brother and drives him into exile. The Emperor is coming increasingly under the control of his second wife’s clan, led by the devious patriarch Ootomo (Eijirô Tôno), and when the Prince’s brother tries to return, Ootomo kills him, and lets the Emperor think Ōsu did the deed, so the Emperor keeps sending his son off on risky military ventures, hoping he’ll be killed or at least kept away for a long time. Meanwhile, as the Ootomos gain greater control, a law banning marriages between people of different local clans and states results in many being executed or exiled. The Prince’s first assignment is to take on some a fearsome pair of brother robber barons, the Kumasos (Takashi Shimura and Kôji Tsuruta), and bring their territory under Yamato control. When he does manage to bring the Kumasos down, the younger brother, a more reasonable and philosophical man, suggests to the Prince with his dying words that he be known from now on as Yamato Takeru, variably translated as the Strongest or the Bravest in the Land, and begs him to bring peace to the warring nation by unifying it under a strong hand.
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Like much mythology from around the world, the legends portrayed here have political and religious motives. Much of this lore was synthesised to provide divine origins and stature for the Japanese Imperial family, as well as offering conduits connecting human order to the celestial, wrapping certain ritual dictums in a tangled knot with historical facts. In the original tales Yamato Takeru stands as a culture hero with many ready analogues in western traditions, including Hercules, with whom he shared a ferocious temper and great strength, Arthur, as a unifying warrior-poet associated with a divinely invested sword, and several protagonists of the Trojan tales, immortalised by great feats and powers but brought low by his failure to properly heed the Gods. In legends codified in the Kojiki or Book of Ancient Things, Yamato Takeru really did kill his brother, ripping off his arms no less, and eventually died when he unwittingly picked a fight with a local god who struck him down with disease. Other histories neglected such piquant details, and The Birth of Japan exploits this wriggle room to revise legend with contemporary resonances and personal meaning for Inagaki, toning Takeru down and making the wayward Prince more a misunderstood hero, rueing his reputation for headstrong ferocity whilst evolving into a statesman who finally pronounces his faith that more can be achieved by talking than with force of arms.
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One immediate subtext inferred by the title and borne out by the approach to its hero is the film is also about the rebirth of Japan as post-war state, striving to leave behind a reputation for bellicosity, trying to better understand itself and achieve a new blend of ancient and modern precepts. Inagaki emphasises construction, glimpsing the Yamato citizens building new and increasingly ambitious structures as their city-state grows, nodding to the postwar reconstruction process. Inagaki tries to intuitively depict ancient Japan, a time before much of the familiar cultural paraphernalia of the country evolved – Kusunagi, for instance, is no katana blade, but a more primitive type of sword. The narrative, suggesting the government is being twisted out of shape by a malign and prejudice-mongering set of usurpers, has its own suggestive aspect. Inagaki’s fondness for conflicted, down-to-earth protagonists manifests as he  remakes the aristocratic titan as a figure striving to find self-control, a man who loves the company of his fellow soldiers, and struggles against creeping forces of prejudice and xenophobia he sees starting to infect Yamato under the repudiates the intermarriage ban. The ban sees his loyal lieutenant Yakumo (Kô Mishima) and his lover Azami (Kumi Mizuno), who has been mobbed and exiled by her people, forced to romance in secret until the Prince takes them under his wing.
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The Birth of Japan bears a notable relationship with Toho’s Godzilla (1954) and other kaiju eiga films, with two of that film’s most vital collaborators contributing to Inagaki’s film: the special effects provided by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube. The fascinating imagery of the opening depiction of the Heaven and Earth being created wield a majestic flavour although they maintain Inagaki’s stylised approach by retaining a look reminiscent of paintings and theatrical backdrops, swirling mists in the void giving way to boiling waters and thrusting rock piles, out of which are born cosmic entities. Tsuburaya’s effects work had a strong effect on fantastical styles in Japanese film and television. The beloved ‘70s Japanese TV take on Journey to the West, Monkey, which in dubbed versions would become the first exposure to Asian mythology and culture for a generation of young westerners, bore the influence strongly in its craggy, misty fantastical landscapes and ingenious effects. As he had touched on in his Musashi trilogy, Inagaki here becomes bolder in utilising anti-realistic set design and special effects to suggest the presence of the ethereal and a protoplasmic sense of reality becoming real. He rhymes the barren, protean landscape Izanami and Izanagi first tread upon and the volcanic pool where Takeru meets his end, blasted cradles of birth where new dimensions open up after deeds of creation and extermination.
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Takeru’s film journey includes the most famous episodes from his folklore, most particularly one in which he dresses as a serving girl to defeat his foes, an image beloved of classic ukiyo-e artists, an adventure in cross-dressing that fascinatingly serves the purpose of giving the hero a feminine side, a purposeful humiliation that liberates him from the dark and marauding side of his masculine character. The Prince is driven to such lengths after a successful sneak attack by the Kumasos’ warriors with flaming arrows kills many of his men, and gets his chance to strike back when the Kumasos and their people throw an orgiastic celebration in victory. Clad in a woman’s clothes, the Prince infiltrates the Kumasos’ fortress and gets close enough to stab the older brother to death. Inagaki extends the gender-bending joke when the Kumasos find the veild Takeru more attractive than one of the other maids. After slaying the older brother, Takeru and the young duel in a ferocious sword-fight, and after he wins the younger Kumaso bestows upon the Prince his new name and destiny. Takeru’s ploy here allows an otherwise bloodless conquest of the Kumaso territory, and he’s able to return home to his father. But he soon finds himself ordered on another perilous mission, and begins to despair of his father’s love and of ever gaining a safe footing in the world. Visiting his aunt, Princess Yamato-hime (Kinuyo Tanaka), who serves as High Priestess in a temple of the sun goddess Amaterasu, placates him by giving him Kusanagi, which she tells him his father sent to him to protect him. Takeru is cheered by this, although one of the Priestess’s shrine maidens, Princess Otohachibana (Yôko Tsukasa), realises she’s lying. Otohichibana and Takeru fall hopelessly in love with each-other, but cannot be married because of her religious vows.
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Whilst Takeru’s story unfolds, Inagaki returns at times to depictions of the gods and the ongoing making of the world, particularly the stately Amaterasu herself (Setsuko Hara) and her wild brother, god of sea and storms, Susanoo (Mifune again). Both gods are counted as ancestors of the first Emperor Jimmu and so of Takeru himself. Susanoo’s penchant for mean pranks culminates when he tosses a dead horse in the midst of Amaterasu’s circle of maidens who sew lengths of shimmering material that resemble the sun’s rays, accidentally killing one of the maidens. Offended and infuriated, Amaterasy retreats into a cave, taking the sun’s light and power with her and leaving everything in darkness, the Earth overrun by evil forces and the gods in heaven bored and fatigued. Trying to think of a way to lure Amaterasu out again, the gods eventually decide to throw a wild party, so the sun goddess will emerge to see what she’s missing. To stir laughter and high spirits, they get the goddess Uzume (Nobuko Otowa) to perform a saucy dance, whilst other gods make the mirror and jewel that will become two parts of the Imperial regalia to reflect Amaterasu’s reflection back at her when she looks out, to make her think another goddess is taking her place and make her jealous. The ruse works and the sun returns to the world. Susanoo, banished for making trouble, sucks all the water out of the world in his incessant bratty crying, but eventually gains control and begins wandering the Earth.
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Inagaki has Takeru’s aunt make the connection between Susanoo’s bratty lack of emotional control and Takeru’s tendency to feel sorry for himself, turning the film, after a fashion, into a tract on what we might now fashionably call toxic masculinity; the act of maturation is the process of gaining self-control and stoic virtues. As well as genealogy the divine vignettes are also a form of psychologising, contextualising Takeru as a man lost in the most complex and cruel world of humans by comparison to the outlandish passions and gifts of the gods, and also are explicitly presented as structures though which people communicate values and ideas as a common inheritance of parable. In the last vignette, Susanoo comes to a village where the inhabitants live in cringing fear of a monstrous, eight-headed dragon. The village chieftain Anazuchi (Akira Sera) and his wife explain that the monster has already eaten seven of their daughters, and only have left, Kushinada (Misa Uehara). Susanoo vows to protect her and transforms her into a comb, lodging her in his hair whilst he ventures out to do battle with the monster, which he baits into getting drunk with vats of sake. Attacking the woozy beast, Susanoo manages to pierce its stout tail repeatedly, bleeding it to death. As he hacks open the dragon, he finds the sword Kusanagi lodged in its flesh. Susanoo presented it as a present in apology to Amaterasu and married Kushinada.
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Susanoo’s duel with the dragon is the most colourfully visualised and familiarly fantastical sequence in the film, anticipating some of Harryhausen’s sequences like the battle with the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, although Tsuburaya’s puppetry effects for realising the dragon aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The dragon does bear a strong resemblance of Tsubraya’s work animating the monstrous Gidorah in later Godzilla entries. The faintly comic-erotic touch of Susanoo transforming Kushinada and wearing her strikes a droll note before Ifukube’s music turns dark and momentous and Tsuburaya announces the monster’s arrival with a waterspout and rainstorm. The grotesquely wriggling beasts cleaves a path through the sea and arrives to sup greedily upon the vats of sake. Here Susanoo transforms himself, from lawless and chaotic figure to saviour and defender, whilst confronting the dragon, distinguishing divine order from the primal terrors unleashed by Amaterasu’s retreat and giving new moral form to the world. Takeru mimics his evolution as he tries to forge new alliances and modes of diplomacy, but he finds his reputation hard to shake. When he’s visited by an envoy of the Owari, Princess Miyazu (Kyôko Kagawa), she, fearful for her aged and crippled father and their kingdom, tries to poison Takeru with poisoned sake – a subtle rhyme with the use of drink to disarm the dragon. Miyazu warns him off drinking it as she realises in listening to him that he’s a sane and decent man. Frustrate by Otohachibana’s hysterical repudiation of him, Takeru begins romancing Miyazu, but Otohachibana seeks him out on hearing of their impending nuptials, and this time succumb to profane passion.
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Ootomo’s sons and pretenders meanwhile visit a local warlord, Kurohiko (Jun Tazaki), and talk him into killing Takeru for them. Kurohiko’s fiefdom lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which Takeru has never seen before – Tsuburaya’s model version of the mountain depicts it before it blew its top off, smoking and smouldering with baleful rumblings. Kurohiko tries to kill Takeru when on a boar hunt in the grassy plains under the great mountain. Otohachibana pursues him to warn him, and they become trapped as Kurohiko’s men set fire to the grass, threatening to engulf the lovers. Takeru coins the magic sword’s name as he uses it to hack away the grass in a space surrounding them, to try and rob the fire of fuel. Takeru finds quickly the sword has the power to summon wind and turns the flames back on his enemies, allowing him to rejoin his warriors and slay Kurohiko, who vengefully tells Takeru that his father ordered his assassination. Fate claims is price as Takeru, his bride, and his army sail on their way to another mission only for a terrible storm to strike the fleet and threaten all aboard with destruction: Otohichibana realises that it’s punishment for her breaking her vows, and she throws herself into the ocean. Her sacrifices works, pacifying the storm, and Takeru stares into the water where she sank, which glows an eerie green. Heartbroken and wearied, he decides to take his men back to Yamato to let them see their loved ones and to beg for an end to his wandering, warlike exile.
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The most awkward aspect of The Birth of Japan is also its most interesting: the structure is made diffuse by the alternation of the main story of Yamato Takeru and the more archaic, symbolic myths, and try as they might, Inagaki and the screenwriters don’t always counterpoint them effectively. Aspects of the central story, whilst potentially as complex as Inagaki managed in the Musashi movies, don’t really go anywhere, like Takeru’s foiled relationship with Miyazu, who becomes the keeper of Kusunagi after the Prince gives it to her to protect. Mifune’s presence in the dual roles of Susanoo and Takeru does a lot to yoke the hemisphere together, however; although much less famed than Mifune’s collaborations with Kurosawa, his work with Inagaki is the definition of a great director-star collaboration, and The Birth of Japan depends greatly on the actor’s charisma and physical prowess as well as his ability to project emotional complexity in a role that might easily have been reduced to a heroic blank. Surrounding him is a startling survey of well-known actors, some, like Mifune’s costars from Kurosawa films like Shimura and Uehara, only appearing briefly if in totemic parts. Casting Hara, so often the lovelorn lovely at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, as the proud sun goddess has a faint quality of in-joke, whilst Tono, so often a great villain, makes you hate his conniving Ootomo with great efficiency. Inagaki’s scenes of battle and spectacle are superb, like the fight between Takeru and the younger Kumaso.
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And yet some of the film’s best moments are meditative, as when the Yamato warriors listen to one of the men playing a wistful flute under the shadow of the simmering Fuji, whilst Takeru and Otohichibana lounge in brief respite from their angst, a sequence in which Inagaki seems to be grasping directly at some kernel of folk-memory, his sense of a culture of musical performance as the truest connecting thread of his national sensibility. This is also the only time Inagaki makes a direct, present-tense correlation between the human and divine levels comes when he dissolves from Takeru and Otohichibana embracing in the night to the sight of Uzume dancing for the gods, signalling the accord of wistful, fleeting happiness and the role of the dancing goddess as the bringer of dawn, before the day brings its sad duties. The relative innocence and playfulness Inagaki emphasises in the anecdotes of the gods in their moments of vanity, savagery, silliness, and eventually heroism, moreover offsets the tendency of the human characters to take themselves too seriously. Even the sometimes awful Susanoo is an overgrown brat at first. Inagaki’s sense of the Shinto inheritance is essentially a joyous one, busy with characters who amass into an oddball community maintaining a pacific balance in the universe.
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Only the film’s very end suggests a truly solemn sense of spiritual awe, and that comes, perhaps meaningfully, when the offence to human and divine order finally stirs cosmic wrath. Upon returning to Yamato, Takeru and his men decide to leave again and continue with their peace-making quest rather than stir up trouble at home. But the Ootomos lead out an army to meet them, pretending to be a friendly welcoming committee, before attacking in treacherous fashion, sparking a bloody battle on the hills of Yamato that rages until only Takeru and Yakumo are left. The final eruption of violent chaos makes a mockery of Takeru’s peacemaking plans but also provides his warrior crew with their moment of sacrificial grandeur, as his men link arms and form a human chain to protect their leader from arrows that skewer them instead. Takeru meanwhile fights to save Yakumo so he can get home to Azami, ripping paths through the Ootomo warriors. Yakumo manages to escape after slaying a few pursuers, whilst Takeru crawls on his hands and knees to a pool on a mountain peak to drink, only for lurking archers to riddle him from afar with shafts. The slaying of Takeru’s mortal form sees his soul emerge as a white bird that flies high above Yamato and unleashing a deus-ex-machina spectacle.
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A volcanic eruption spews rivers of lava and cracks the ground, swallowing up the Ootomo forces, and the survivors who make it down to the shoreline are washed away by tsunamis crashing upon the land. It’s a tremendous finale, courtesy of Tsuburaya’s technical ebullience as he plainly tries to match the parting of the Red Sea scene in The Ten Commandments, delivering the villains their comeuppance on a grand scale. But it’s also a purposeful invention by the filmmakers appended to Takeru’s legend, turning him from victim of hubris into the spirit of justice, with a reverent attitude to the instability of the Japanese landscape itself, trapped between peaks that unleash hellfire and oceans that swell and crash, not seen as mere natural chaos but as a different kind of order, evoking the state of existence for the humans who dwell between the consuming extremes of their own natures. Takeru is reborn as exemplar for the citizens of Yamato. Ifukube’s career-best work might be found here, too, as he avoids the usual clichés of epic scoring, instead filling the soundtrack with a soaring chorus both eerie and majestic at once, signifying the spiritual power behind the surface chaos, before the white bird wings its way to heaven, glimpsed amidst sun-stroked clouds.

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1970s, 1980s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Omen (1976) / Damien: Omen II (1978) / The Final Conflict (1981)

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Directors: Richard Donner; Don Taylor; Graham Baker
Screenwriters: David Seltzer; Mike Hodges, Stanley Mann; Andrew Birkin

By Roderick Heath

The success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) inaugurated a brief moment when Horror films were not just big business but could potentially be classy, mass-audience fare. Rosemary’s Baby had woven quotidian anxieties over childbirth and coupling into a story that slowly unveiled the presence of genuine supernatural evil but avoided all but a faint aura of standard genre imagery. The Exorcist had become a huge hit for many reasons, on top of satisfying a basic hunger for raw showmanship and thrills. Perhaps the most vital factor was how it identified the degree to which religious anxiety had percolated during the sexual and social revolutions of the late 1960s. By the time The Exorcist came along, disaster movies had also become hugely popular, serving up another variety of realistic horror as Hollywood’s old-timers and young stars alike lined up to be endangered and often killed off in inventive ways. Producer Harvey Bernhard hit upon a project that allowed him to combine these two popular modes. A friend of Bernhard’s suggested the idea of the Biblically-predicted Antichrist being incarnated in a contemporary setting, and the excited producer hired screenwriter David Seltzer to give flesh to this notion.
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Bernhard aimed high and succeeded in hiring big-name actors not normally associated with the genre, in particular Gregory Peck, who was attracted by the element of psychological drama inherent in the story. The result became a colossal hit that Bernhard and Twentieth Century Fox soon sought to expand into a series, producing two sequels over the next few years that became one of the first real examples of something more familiar to moviegoers today, a coherent blockbuster trilogy. For a director, Bernhard bypassed established genre talents, looking instead for someone with experience in more intimate dramas with the ability to imbue a glossy texture, and one who would also be conveniently cheap. He settled on the little-known Richard Donner, a Bronx-born director who hadn’t made a feature film in five years, since the jailbait sex comedy Lola (1970). Donner was 45 when he was hired to make The Omen, hardly one of the young tyros setting ‘70s cinema alight at the time. Donner had debuted as a feature filmmaker with X-15 (1961), but had done most of his apprentice work on television, on everything from The Rifleman to Kojak, with perhaps his most notable effort being the infamous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone.
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The raw material of The Omen could surely have fuelled a hit at any time, but the resulting film’s potency is rooted deeply in the mid-‘70s sensibility. Not only did it successfully tap the same vein of religious angst as The Exorcist, but also connected with a broader zeitgeist, one fuelled by a general feeling of cultural crack-up in the face of events like the Energy Crisis and Watergate, and compelled by a general penchant for conspiracy theories and New Age jive. A time of Erich von Daniken and In Search Of…, the post-counterculture distrust of official narratives and a blend of paranoia and mystical assurance greeting any theory that a deeper truth lay behind any façade, that even human history itself might be an elaborate cover-up. Another aspect of The Omen’s unusual approach to the fantastical lay in the way it avoided the usual trappings of Horror films, taking on a glamorous milieu in dealing with a rarefied zone of worldly consequence and power, quite a distance from the often grimy realism inflecting the lower-budget genre movies of the time, and showing evil at work not with monsters but a blend of human conspiracy and otherworldly influence. Val Lewton’s series of horror films and some rare other examples like Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1961) had purveyed a certain level of ambiguity over manifestations of evil as possibly elaborate accidents and the like, but The Omen films made this aspect the essence of their formula. With the added twist that rather than trying to establish doubt, these tricks mesh together to form the irresistible impression of something perfectly wicked and insidiously purposeful at work.
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The Omen begins with American diplomat and wealthy scion Robert Thorn (Peck) trying to reach the hospital in Rome where his wife has just given birth to a son who died almost immediately. Robert is soon convinced by the hospital chaplain, a priest named Spiletto (Martin Benson), to adopt another baby born at the same time, one without any apparent family connections; even his wife doesn’t have to know about the substitution. Thorn agrees, and he and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) name the boy Damien. The family soon travels to Great Britain, where Robert is appointed ambassador, representative of his old college roommate who’s now the US President. An apparently idyllic childhood for Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) begins to destabilise at a showy fifth birthday party thrown for him, a great moment in diplomatic and plutocratic hoopla. Damien’s nanny (Holy Palance) seems to fall under the spell of a staring Rottweiler hovering in the bushes of the Thorn estate. Soon after, the nanny appears the roof of the house, and after shouting the salutation, “It’s all for you Damien!”, hangs herself in full view of the party. The nanny’s place is taken by the sweetly assuring but enigmatic Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who breezes into the Thorn house and quickly establishes a rule over Damien that perturbs his parents. An anxious, seemingly disturbed priest, Brennan (Patrick Troughton), sneaks into Robert’s office to spout warnings that Damien is the anointed Antichrist, and pleas for Robert to perform Communion.
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When Robert meets him again on the Thames bank, Brennan warns him that Katherine is pregnant and now in danger from her son. The priest is immediately killed when a bizarre windstorm rises and a lightning rod, dislodged from the church he dashes to in seeking sanctuary, impales him. Fulfilling Brennan’s warning, Katharine does prove to be pregnant and loses the baby after she suffers a spectacular fall caused by Damien. A freelance photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), approaches Robert to share bizarre evidence about Brennan’s obsession, including photos Jennings took that seem to depict supernatural forewarnings of Brennan and the nanny’s deaths, and perhaps his own. Robert travels to Italy with Jennings to investigate Damien’s birth, but they find the hospital burned down along with all records. After tracking down Spiletto, left badly mangled by the fire and repentantly clinging to existence in a lonely monastery in Subiaco, they head to a remote cemetery where Damien’s birth mother is supposedly buried. They find the skeleton of an animal, alongside a baby with its skull smashed in – Robert realises this is his true son’s remains, whilst animal skeleton conforms a prophecy the Antichrist would be born of a jackal. Robert and Jennings head on to Megiddo in Israel, obeying one of Brennan’s implorations, to see Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a former exorcist turned archaeologist. Bugenhagen presents Robert with seven antique daggers, part of set forged specifically to destroy the Devil’s spawn, and instructs him how to use them, and also on how to finally prove Damien is the Antichrist, by looking for a birthmark of the letters 666, the number of the beast, which might be under his hair.
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Donner and Seltzer’s talent in purveying a potentially absurd story is evinced right from the opening frames of the film: Donner immerses the audience in Robert’s fraught emotional state as he’s driven through the Roman night filled with anxiety and heartbreak as a phone conversation telling him his baby is dead loops in his head. The expert use of disjunctive sound and vision establishes Donner’s storytelling as sophisticated in a very (1976) modern manner, even as his story subsequently dives into a realm of atavistic terrors and ethereal faiths. After Katharine’s recovery from childbirth and a brief moment of panic when Damien vanishes from sight during a country walk, the Thorn way of life seems like perfect fodder for a glossy lifestyle magazine, a similarity Donner underlines as he depicts their life in a montage of still photos. He manages in this way to fend his way through a difficult narrative movement in getting from Damien’s birth to his fifth birthday, when the real drama starts, shocked into life by the nanny’s suicide, a shock illustrated in Remick’s wide blue eyes as Katharine cradles her son and stares aghast up at the dangling body.
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“We’re beautiful people aren’t we?” Katharine half-sarcastically asks her husband in bed as they contemplate the possibility something’s wrong in their life. Peck’s imposing stature and air of stiff-necked conviction made an ideal framework to hang such a movie off, with a strand of dark humour as well as aspirition lurking behind such casting, as the former Atticus Finch is pushed towards trying to stab a small child for the sake of sparing the world a great evil, degenerating from emblem of state to a sad, sick, murderous avenger: finally, when he narrates the same poem Brennan quoted to him recounting the rise of the Antichrist, Peck is back playing Ahab again, speaking incantations of bleak promise. Robert’s emotional crises fight to escape his long, rigid Yankee body, all the smouldering, blue-blooded authority encoded in his frame and mindset resenting being forced to such an end. The build-up to his ultimate failure evokes both the biblical task of Abraham moving to sacrifice Isaac and also the popular moral conundrum of whether you’d kill an infant Hitler. Although The Omen’s plot invokes cosmic-scale drama, Seltzer proved smart enough to focus it on a resolutely human scale, refracted through real-feeling parental anxieties as well as a mainline connection to a lode of paranoia that might be mental illness or pan-cultural.
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Katharine flails increasingly under the certainty not only that Damien is not her child but has malign intention towards her, and Robert becomes increasingly rueful of the choice he made seemingly to protect his wife and secure his family legacy. The Omen builds up the impression of Damien’s strangeness through happenings that could simply be reflections of the unexpected eccentricity and intractability of kids that so easily upturns all picture-perfect lives, as when Damien throws a screaming fit when his parents take to a church for a wedding. A visit to a safari park sees howling baboons crawl over the car. The storyline invokes maternal depression as Katharine becomes increasingly alienated from her son and mindful of Baylock’s influence, who breezes in as a cruel lampoon of Mary Poppins, installs the lurking Rottweiler as a guard dog, and who advocates for the child’s needs above the parents’ wishes, like a personification of ‘70s childrearing books. At the same time The Omen also presents a twist on an old folkloric metaphor for such a state of emotional alienation, the notion of the changeling, the creature that takes the place of a child and stakes a parasitical place in a family. The finale pivots on Robert’s awareness upon returning to his house that it now lies under an alien regime, like a newly divorced father contending with others controlling his child.
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Although it’s not gleefully gruesome as some other set-pieces in the film, the sequence of Katharine’s fall is the film’s greatest illustration of its cunning method, a seemingly very credible kind of domestic disaster touch with signs of genuine malice and numinous influence. Damien drives his tricycle around in his room whilst Katharine stands on a table trying to arrange a hanging plant, high on a second floor balcony. Damien, deep in that trancelike intensity of transportation kids can achieve in playing or possibly actually pushed along by Satanic will, with Baylock watching him with indulgent and opening the door so he ride out: Damien crashes into the table and knocks Katharine down. A fishbowl crashes to the floor far below and explodes. Katharine clings to the railing, unable to pull herself up, and falling to earth under her son’s staring regard. Donner’s direction here is a master-class in building a sequence, observing patiently as the circumstance is created in a way everyone can wince at because it’s so believable, whilst there are signs, as Baylock opens the door to let Damien out and Jerry Goldsmith’s chant-ridden, chugging music scoring betrays an unseen factor.
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More famous, however, and gleeful in purveying startling evidence of demonic influence masquerading as happenstance are Brennan’s and Jennings’ deaths. Brennan’s last moments invoke more traditional horror movie imagery, as powerful winds rip through trees and Brennan desperately seeks sanctuary, before the lightning rod plunges from its perch, flash edits alternating a high perspective on Brennan’s screaming face and his of the plunging rod. Jennings’ end comes when he resolves to pick up the seven daggers after Robert tosses them away in a fit of resistance. A truck laden with glass sheets for a building job rolls down a slope after its handbrake slips off, and one of the sheets slides off the tray in languorous slow motion, slicing Jennings’ head clean off. Less pyrotechnic but just as vividly staged is the graveyard venture, where Robert and Jennings uncover the troubling skeletons and fight off a team of savage watchdogs that suddenly try to lunch upon them, ripping teeth and jutting steel fixtures brutalising their bodies. Donner’s gift for intensifying a narrative is suggested in more off-hand scenes, too, as when Robert and Jennings press the gnarled and barely living Spiletto where to find Damien’s mother. The agonising process of him scribbling out the answer with a piece of charcoal is rendered even more unnerving and rhythmically intense as a bell starts to peal above their heads.
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Another vital aspect of the film lies in how Seltzer’s inventive plot uses the structure of a mystery thriller to pull the narrative along, as Robert and Jennings parse the increasingly suggestive evidence and contend with a lurking, almost existential threat. The act of parsing the signs and omens becomes, rather than medieval irrationality, a process of contemporary logic, whittling down alternatives until it’s plain what’s going on. By the end every cue in the film leaves no ambiguity that Damien really is the Antichrist when it might have been plied far more subtly with the possibility Robert’s psychotic. Which might be counted as a fault of the film but it also surely explains why it became such a big hit. The climactic scenes see the family house, initially seen as a great hunk of real estate porn, become the classic, labyrinthine old dark house, a place where Robert has to outwit the devil dog and battle a startlingly savage Baylock before snatching away Damien. But not before he’s penetrated the ultimate layer of the mystery by clipping away Damien’s hair until he finds the 666 mark. Robert stabs Baylock to death in a tussle and steals Damien away to the church, but pursuing police, thinking some kidnapping drama is unfolding, instead seem him perched over the boy with raised dagger and shoot him dead.
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Here Donner twists the knife with particular sadism as Damien speaks properly for the first time in the film, pleading with his “daddy”, and the cop’s bullet erupts from his gun in spectacular slow-motion. Dissolve to a funeral at Arlington as Robert and Katharine are interred and young Damien is now seen taken in hand by the President, turning to smile triumphantly at the camera. One of the great merciless endings in cinema, of course, but also one that invites the audience conspiratorially into Damien’s space at the end: all the evil is, after all, being purveyed specifically for our entertainment. As classy as The Omen affects to be, it’s really sheer blood and thunder, wielding the thrill of bloodshed with a hint of gamesmanship and design cleverness wrapped in an affection of high-minded metaphysical and familial distress. Part of the film’s effectiveness lies in its sense of branding – the gnarled and creepy 666 birthmark, the lovingly crafted Megiddo daggers. There’s mystique and evocation of grand historical backdrops in the scenes of Robert’s visit to Bugenhagen in Megiddo, the ancient catacombs yawning wide and echoing with the whispers of archaic lore. The strength of the supporting performances also do a lot to convince you this malarkey is conceivable, particularly Warner’s projection of cool anxiety, Troughton’s sweaty disquiet, McKern’s bristling presence, and Whitelaw’s marvellous incarnation of ferocious momma-bear force touched with fanatical lunacy.
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The Omen’s success made Donner a go-to arch-professional for muscular action films and stylish melodramas for the next thirty years. Donner quickly moved to make a kind of messianic sequel/antistrophe when he next took on Superman (1978), offering a hero who’s a perfect inversion of Damien, staving off disasters and misfortunes. For an actual sequel, however, neither Donner nor Seltzer would return. The Omen’s success and open ending begged one, however, and Bernhard began to think more expansively. After hiring Stanley Mann to write the script, he then brought Mike Hodges, the punchy, intelligent director of Get Carter (1972), on board; Hodges contributed to the screenplay and began making the film, but soon he was fired for moving too slowly, and instead Don Taylor was hired to finish it. Taylor was a decent filmmaker who had done yeoman service on Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), but one prized for productivity rather than invention. The sequel, Damien: Omen II, commences immediately after the original, with Bugenhagen dashing into Tel Aviv after reading of Robert Thorn’s death and seeing young Damien’s photo in a newspaper. Bugenhagen talks a colleague, Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry), into coming with him to see a recently unearthed mural in Megiddo called Yigael’s Wall, painted by a prophet and affecting to reveal the faces of the Antichrist in his maturation. The wall does indeed prove to have young Damien’s face as one of the visages, but the underground excavation complex collapses in upon itself and buries both men alive.
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Bugenhagen’s death right at the outset of the second entry was both a clever touch and also a bad one when it came to expanding a one-off hit into a series. The trilogy was left without a strong antagonist or connecting figure other than Damien himself, leaving a hole an actor of McKern’s skill and force might easily have filled. But it also served the purpose of re-establishing the original’s sense of threat, the lack of any assurance the Satanic project can be forestalled, and reiterating that any character can be killed. The cleverly exploited wellspring of the series’ anxious outlook was in identifying not simply the fear that scripture might be right and that a great contest of Good and Evil is in the offing, but in also suggesting that there might not actually be such a contest. That the Devil is uncontested now. That perhaps Jehovah has grown disgusted and uninterested in the fate of his wayward creation in the face of the rational, permissive, immoral modern human world, the infrastructure of which seems to stave off such metaphysical worries and yet which proves consistently throughout the series entirely amenable to Satan’s uses. The way holy talismans and places seem to offer little real defence against Satan’s power throughout constantly hints at this state of abandonment, and the ironic passion the various Satanic minions and then Damien himself wield stems from their state of utter religious conviction, conviction out of reach to anyone else.
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Moreover, Damien: Omen II is wise enough to expand on the original’s basis in family, with the extended Thorn clan coming into play as a rough assemblage. Seven years later: Damien, now 12 and played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, has been adopted by his father’s brother Richard (William Holden), who has a son the same age, Mark (Lucas Donat), who Damien regards as a brother, and a second wife, Ann (Lee Grant), who plays mother to both boys. Damien and Mark attend military school together, where Damien is solicitously treated by his new instructor, Sgt. Neff (Lance Henriksen). Richard is a powerful industrialist at the head of the Chicago-based Thorn Corporation: Richard and his long-time associate Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) are taken aback by the plans of hotshot young executive Paul Buher (Robert Foxworth) to buy up land in the third world and seize control of international food supplies to ensure hegemony that can counter OPEC. Meanwhile Richard’s elderly aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) urges him to split Damien and Mark up as she believes Damien’s a bad influence, despite lacking any real cause to think so. Shortly afterwards Marion is visited by a raven in her bedroom, and she drops dead from a heart attack.
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After convincing Richard not to go along with Buher’s plan, Atherton falls into a frozen lake whilst playing ice hockey with the Thorns, and drowns. Dr Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor), the head of Richard’s charitably financed Thorn Museum, works to retrieve Yigael’s Wall from Megiddo and bring it to Chicago. His journalist friend Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), who also knew Jennings, has seen the artefact as it was excavated, and she approaches Richard in a panic to warn him about Damien. Whilst the first film suggested that Damien was aware of his true nature, Damien: Omen II finds him oblivious, at first merely an occasionally smart-aleck but hardly terrible lad on the brink of manhood. The ideas that propel the film are notably similar to the thesis espoused in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, adapted for TV in the same year of 1976, in presenting a metaphor for the creation of a social monster via the active, purposeful elimination of characters who represent not just opponents in a hierarchical chain, but also alternative value systems, like Ayres’ conscientious old-fashioned businessman, aghast at a nascent age of dictatorial corporate cynicism, and other checks and balances of family and friends, charity, and faith. Damien’s callow overconfidence and agonised struggle in realising what he is amplify a familiar state of adolescent angst.
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The first film was fairly vague beyond the lot of the Thorns themselves and the trappings of ambassadorial power about the wider implications of the Antichrist’s rise, beyond muttered references to the European Common Market and the Eternal Sea that is “the world of politics.” Whereas Damien: Omen II tries to animate an intriguingly pointed contemplation of American Empire as fit soil for the Antichrist to grow from, from martial inculcation at the military school to increasingly amoral corporate governance. The film’s portrait of world-shaking evil spawned in the form of a relentlessly coddled son of privilege is one that’s taken on a shade more relevance in recent years. A less cluttered narrative might have made more of the way Damien’s ego is fed by minions like Neff and Buher, as he’s rewarded with such adolescent fantasy pleasures as captains of industry kowtowing to him and white-clad debutantes hanging on to his every word. Bill Butler’s excellent photography wraps proceedings up with a sense of high-life lushness in the snowy landscapes and autumnal leaves, the polished and glitzy worlds of the Thorn estate and the military school, as well as pulling off the staging coups when it gives to delivering the goods in the various scenes of contrived death and calamity.
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Where Donner was able to surprise with his death-spectacle trimmings, however, unnerving the audience as the mechanics of death could appear out of nowhere, Taylor is much more obvious, inspiring more a chortling anticipation of watching him set up grim demises than real menace. Still, there’s real visual force in some of the set-pieces, as when Joan is gruesomely attacked by the ominous raven, which pecks out her eyes and leaves her stranded on a highway to be run over by a truck, and when a doctor, Kane (Meshach Taylor), on the verge of discovering Damien’s inhuman physiognomy, is sliced in half by a cable connected to a plummeting elevator counterweight. The film’s best scenes however aren’t the episodes of violence but the very personal ones involving Damien, as when he contends with a teacher at the military school who finds he can’t trip the lad up on historical events, Damien retorting his answers with defiant cool. The highpoint of the film, and perhaps the series, comes when, following a breadcrumb trail of clues left by Neff, he discovers his birthmark. Divining its import, Damien dashes in anguished panic through the school ground before collapsing on a jetty, gazing up into a cloud-riven sky, and screams out the eternal demand, “Why me?” Damien quickly accepts his lot, however, because the promise of power is the ultimate salve and, as noted above, it blesses him with the potent weapon of self-belief. Later, when he’s driven to use his powers to kill Mark, he releases a great cry of despair and weeps over his brother in also mourning for the last of his abandoned humanity.
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As strong as these aspects of Damien: Omen II are, it doesn’t add up to nearly as much as it might have, because it struggles in lacking the original’s sense of foreboding and discovery whilst trying to retain its formula. The basic premise is solidly established and the film refuses to do much to complicate it. So it becomes too often a mere succession of elaborate set-pieces aimed at pleasing an audience there for the great kills, repeating the same process – some hapless individual gets in the road of the Satanic programme or threatens to uncover Damien’s identity – over until the requisite running time is reached. Meanwhile Holden is locked into a role that forces him to play out Peck’s arc from the last film again, with the twist at the end that this time the doting Jane, who makes a show of refusing to think ill of anyone, proves to be another Satanic minion. She stabs Richard in the stomach with the retrieved Megiddo daggers when he plans to use them on Damien. The film ends effectively if bluntly with Damien unleashing an exploding boiler in the Thorn Corporation headquarters to clear away all evidence including the luckless Jane, and he marches out of the burning Thorn Corporation building to take charge of his kingdom. The third and final entry, The Final Conflict (sometimes also called Omen III: The Final Conflict), came out three years later. This time Bernhard hired Graham Baker, who had only directed TV commercials previously, perhaps in the hope he might nab another Ridley Scott or Alan Parker, and he hired a young New Zealand actor, Sam Neill, to play the now-mature Damien.
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Set nearly twenty years after the previous film (although all films are set demonstrably “now”), Damien has become an immensely powerful plutocrat who’s plotting to spark war between east and west by blowing up the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and leaving conflicting evidence about who did, with the chance to step in and appear the humanitarian saviour. But his attention is distracted by the seemingly imminent rebirth of his ultimate nemesis, Jesus, whose return is heralded by three stars converging into an alignment in the night sky, recreating the Star of Bethlehem. Damien becomes convinced through interpreting Revelations that Jesus will be reborn in England, so he manipulates the current US President (Mason Adams) into assigning him his father’s old post of Ambassador to Britain, after the compulsory hovering Rottweiler mesmerises the current Ambassador into committing elaborate suicide. Meanwhile a team of monks at the Subiaco monastery have formed themselves into a band of assassins, led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi). Having recovered all the Megiddo daggers, the monks set out well-armed to protect the returning Jesus by slaying his foe. As Damien moves to battle them and kill the returned Messiah, he also falls into a pensive romance with BBC TV journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow).
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Although it was another big box office success, The Final Conflict has since its release been generally taken for a humiliatingly weak cap to the series, and a particularly worrying example of what can happen to an interesting property if it hasn’t been thought through by a strong creative hand. But it certainly wields some good ideas, chief amongst them a central sequence in which Damien assembles an army of his acolytes, called The Disciples of the Watch, to recreate Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, killing all the male children born in England in the appointed time for Jesus’s return. Damien addresses them in a meeting that evokes a twisted recontextualisation of artwork depicting Christians performing masses in the Roman catacombs. There’s also one charged and memorable moment in which Damien, having survived an assassination attempt by the monks during a fox hunt, performs the ritual of “blooding” Kate’s son Peter (Barnaby Holm) by wiping the blood of the prize on his cheeks, only with the blood being that of one of his felled enemies, bringing Peter under his influence. Primal rite plays out in the blasted beauty of the English countryside laced with a discomforting note of seduction. There’s also an interesting notion in Damien’s desire to influence all youth, after also wrangling himself the post of UN Ambassador for Youth, setting himself up as a cultish hero for rambunctious youths who might all share, as he once did, a thirst for such ego gratification and exaltation.
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Moreover, The Final Conflict could be regarded as an analogue, Horror genre precursor to The Social Network (2010) in portraying a lonely and neurotic young billionaire who responds by developing delusions of grandeur whilst simultaneously grasping greedily on his few human contacts and also using them cruelly. Damien hovers around his country mansion, barking taunts at the Jesus icon he keeps hanging about his attic, extolling the beauty of “perfect solitude” as a worthy riposte to a saviour he accuses of doing “nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality” when “there is only one hell, the leaden monotony of human existence.” There’s a great idea here, as Damien tries to convert his own alienated emotional state into a religious paradigm. Damien begins to suspect his loyal lieutenant and executive Harvey Pleydell Dean (Don Gordon) is lying to him over the time of his child’s birth and eventually uses his canine harbinger to mesmerise Harvey’s wife Barbara (Leueen Willoughby) into slaying both her child and husband. When he seduces Kate, he turns from tender lover to brute in bed, buggering her and leaving her bruised and bedraggled (he’s the son of Satan, so of course he’s also a sodomite).
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There’s a hint of the familial psychodrama dynamic of the first two film sustained as Kate realises her son has become Damien’s slavish follower, and the Deans are destroyed by Harvey’s attempt to profit from managing Damien’s malign mission only to run off in horror when he learns he might have to make his own sacrifice. The trouble is, The Final Conflict desperately lacks any of the sense of urgency and wild, obscene revelry that seems inherent in such an ambitious story motif, nor any Biblical-scale spectacle in watching Christ and Antichrist do battle. The film rather plays out on a level that’s so stodgy and unpassionately earthbound it might as well be a rejected episode of a TV soap. Granted, it would never be an easy thing to try and film an apocalyptic drama or sell it to a Horror audience, who, much like the characters in the film, find it much easier to believe in the Devil than in God. And to be fair, The Final Conflict tries to sustain the core substance of the series as a perverted bildungsroman, locating the adult Damien as a man both obsessed with justifying himself and operating from a position of crushing solitude, and playing out his apotheosis and downfall on a worldly scale. But where the film might have been rich, weird, and clever in the attempt, The Final Conflict just slouches along. Given that special effects showmanship was starting to creep into Horror and Fantasy filmmaking around this time, it feels particularly frustrating that The Final Conflict nails itself down to such a glum palette.
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Baker has none of Donner or even Taylor’s sense of composing suspense sequences, with some supposedly thrilling episodes, like when three of the priests try to corner Damien in a ruined castle, and the scene of the Dean family’s nasty end, proving particularly clumsy and enervating. Rather than seeing righteous ministers finally stepping up to the task of battling the Antichrist, the priests are ludicrously incompetent and clumsy mob who all get themselves pathetically killed. Hiring Neill and Harrow, who were a couple at the time, to anchor the film suggests a level of bravery on the filmmakers’ part, the feeling that now the series didn’t need big names to attract viewers – Brazzi is the only old-time star on hand, and he’s given very little to do. But the film desperately lacks a compelling focal point. Neill looks the part but his Damien is dull and shrill, desperately lacking wicked charisma. There’s not even a note of amour fou and romantic apocalypse in his relationship with Kate, who finishes up wielding the last of the Megiddo daggers after DeCarlo manages to maintain his team’s terrible batting average by trying to knife Damien but killing Peter accidentally instead.
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Kate stabs Damien in the back vengefully just as he manages to track down the reborn Christ to his hiding place in an old monastery and is confronted before death by the brilliantly shining cosmic manifestation of the Holy Spirit hovering over the infant – Disco Jesus to the rescue. The Final Conflict is generally so flaccid and uninspired that it feels almost unfair to consider it with the first two films, except for two elements: the excellent, atmospheric photography by Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and, once again, Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. Astonishingly, Goldsmith won his only Oscar for The Omen, particularly its main theme with Latin lyrics and dramatic choral singing of inverted paeans to Satan’s son. Goldsmith remained with the series, turning each film in a grandiose study in what great music can do with mediocre cinema. At the end of The Final Conflict, Goldsmith’s invocation of resurgent divinity is every bit as impressive as his portrait of depthless evil, and succeeds in doing what weak filmmaking can’t, in conjuring a sense of truly epic spiritual horizons opening as the series concludes.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Family Films, Fantasy, Scifi

Galaxy Express 999 (1979) / Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (1981)

Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain / Sayônara, Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain: Andromeda Shûchakueki

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Director: Rintaro
Screenwriters: Kon Ichikawa, Shirô Ishimori; Hiroyasu Yamaura

By Roderick Heath

Leiji Matsumoto isn’t a household name outside of Japan except to fans of manga and anime, Japan’s beloved, specific styles in cartooning and animation. But for anyone who does love those art forms, he’s been one of pop culture’s most vital figures, and even those who don’t might still have felt his influence in their childhood TV watching and their contemporary moviegoing. Matsumoto, born in Fukuoka in 1938, helped spark a popular sci-fi boom and a revival of the romantic early style in the genre called space opera, a few years before Star Wars (1977) officially did the same thing in the west. Matsumoto’s love of the space opera mode took some time to gain traction in his early career, and he gained his breakthrough with Otoko Oidon, a manga about a young man struggling to get into college. That project might seem light years away from Matsumoto’s later repute for fantastical dreamings, but rooted all his work in authentic reflections on rites of passage for boys struggling to achieve manhood and define what that means. Matsumoto’s success was sealed when he was hired to develop a concept by a producer for a tale about space travellers on a desperate mission to save the Earth from alien assault. Matsumoto’s take saw a wrecked World War II battleship rebuilt as a spaceship, a bizarre notion that nonetheless proved the key to the idea’s success. A TV adaptation of Matsumoto’s manga, Space Battleship Yamato, or Star Blazers as it was called for its first English-language dub, became a perennial touchstone for anime.

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Space Battleship Yamato defined Matsumoto’s unique touch, his fascination for combining the super-futuristic with the bygone and antiquated, a sense of possibility and longing at once childlike and sophisticated, and vigorous, spectacular action colliding with dreamy lyricism. Matsumoto soon began producing a clutch of beloved characters who evolved to share a fictional universe in his manga and various adaptations for television and cinema, including Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, making him one of the first artists of his kind to really embrace what is now called intertextuality. The French electronica outfit Daft Punk so idolised Matsumoto they talked him into directing Interstella 5555 (2003), a feature-length tale woven around the music from their album Discovery. Matsumoto’s style transposed a very personal and localised sensibility onto happily harvested concepts and tropes from a global tradition in sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up in the midst of war and resulting devastation profoundly impacted upon his creative attitude, and his beloved franchises gained much of their power from an informing anxiety about the tragedies of defeat and loss and the irreparable state of lost innocence and youth. Galaxy Express 999 was first made into a popular TV series and then adapted into a film version by Rintaro, one of the storied hands of anime who had first gained repute working on morning children’s programming perennials Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion series in the 1960s, adaptations of another legend of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka.

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Rintaro (born Shigeyuki Hayashi) became chief director on the TV version of Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and went on to helm many successful anime series and films including a chapter in the acclaimed Neo-Tokyo (1987) and Metropolis (2001). Rintaro worked with Matsumoto, who was credited as planner on the film and, most interestingly, the director Kon Ichikawa, maker of such classics as The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959). Ichikawa had started his career in animation and began dipping his toe back into the field in the ‘70s, and served here as supervisor and co-screenwriter with Shirô Ishimori. Ichikawa’s talents for adaptation and feel for mediating a poetic lustre meshed with Matsumoto’s vision and Rintaro’s visual skill. Galaxy Express 999 revolves around a similar motif to Space Battleship Yamato, a spaceship voyaging through the void built to resemble a far less sophisticated piece of technology, in this case a steam train, in a storyline replete with picaresque discursions but always arcing towards an ultimate confrontation with a formidable foe. But the martial valour and warlike spectacle of the other series were swapped out here in favour of images and ideas more redolent of westerns, and an overall aesthetic that pushed Matsumoto’s romantic and sentimental streaks to the fore.

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Matsumoto’s sci-fi style had a host of readily recognisable inspirations, including the Victoriana dreaming of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and space opera of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and Alex Raymond, but he also drew on more specifically Japanese properties, particularly the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. There’s a strong similarity in sensibility, too, to works like the poet Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poem “Night Train,” and the opening chapter of novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, where the act of travelling by train takes on near-spiritual dimensions, being dissolving into a near-ethereal state of communion. From Sakutarô:

Near daybreak in the dark
Fingerprints chill on the window
Like a soft spill of mercury
White glimmer on the mountains
Passengers hang between sleep and waking
Over them the light-bulbs
sigh with fatigue
(…)
Unexpectedly
we draw close in sadness
and gazing at the eastern clouds
watch light touch
a nameless village in the mountains.

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Galaxy Express 999 unfolds in a future where humankind has achieved tremendous technological leaps to colonise many nearby planets and travel to distant galaxies. But a new force is taking hold and redefining existence, as an increasing number of people are travelling on the famous Galaxy Express 999 transport to its distant, scarcely-seen final stop to swap their frail mortal shells for cybernetic bodies, and conflict between the finite and the virtually immortal seems to be nascent. Young Tetsurô Hoshino (voiced by Masako Nozawa) is an orphan living a hardscrabble existence on the streets of an Earth city called Megalopolis. Tetsuro harbours relentless ambition to get off the Earth again and track down the nefarious robotic overlord Count Mecha (Hidekatsu Shibata), who murdered his mother for sport when they accidentally strayed into his hunting grounds whilst traversing a distant colonial planet. Idolising the outlaws of space whose faces he sees on posters, including Captain Harlock and his fellow pirate Emereldas, Tetsuro wants to obtain a robotic body of his own so he can stand a chance in battle with the Count. He tries to steal a pass for the Galaxy Express from a passenger at a ticketing office, bringing down the wrath of law enforcement.

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Tetsuro glimpses a mysterious woman during his escape, and she helps him evade the cops and hide in her apartment. Tetsuro is startled by the woman’s resemblance to his dead mother, and the woman, whose name is Maetel (Masako Ikeda), agrees to help him achieve his goals. She buys a ticket for Tetsuro and becomes his travelling companion as the Express blasts off into space. The inherently dreamlike conceit of an intergalactic craft that looks like a rattling old steam train is mediated through some expertly deployed technobabble as the engine, actually an incredible, self-aware piece of engineering, sustains all within an “anti-energy infinite-source electro-magnetic barrier.” More importantly, as Maetel explains to her young charge, it’s an aesthetic choice that means the same thing to its passengers as to the movie viewer: it’s designed to foster a sense of nostalgic delight to offset the intensely alienating sensation of travelling deep space and encountering a vast and teeming cosmos.

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Tetsuro gets to know the train’s crew, including its assiduous Conductor (Kaneta Kimotsuki), a squat, glowing-eyed entity in an official uniform, and the attendant Claire (Yôko Asagami), a robotised girl whose body is made of transparent crystal. The Express stays for the length of one day on each planet it lands on, which can be, in Earth time, a couple of hours or a couple of weeks. When it lands on Titan, which has been colonised and terraformed into a lush and rustic backwater, Maetel is kidnapped by some bandits headed by the bristling old warrior Antares (Yasuo Hisamatsu), who is dedicated to battling off the encroachment of the robots and raises a gang of children, all orphans made by Count Mecha. Ignoring Maetel’s pleas for him not to risk himself by chasing her, Tetsuro tracks down the bandits, who test both him and Maetel with x-rays to see if either is a robot; surprisingly, Maetel proves to be entirely human. Tetsuro encounters an old woman (Miyoko Asô) living alone in a cabin, and she finds him so similar to her long-lost son Tochirô in his fighting spirit that she gives him two of her valued possessions: a battered-looking hat, and a laser pistol, the only one of its kind capable of killing robots.

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The movie narrative reproduces the episodic storyline inherited from the manga and TV series, as the Express moves from planet to planet. The filmmakers turn this to their advantage, as each new world reflects as aspect of Tetsuro’s psychological journey as well as his external quest, whilst also suggesting encapsulations of different epochs in recent history. The crude arcadian beauty of Titan blesses Tetsuro with a grandmotherly figure and allows him to step into the shoes of the missing Tochirô to gain a more specific identity, and accumulates the garb and convictions of a mature being. When he and Maetel next disembark on Pluto, which is used as a giant refrigeration unit to keep the discarded mortal shells of the robotised humans, Tetsuro encounters Shadow (Toshiko Fujita), a robotised woman who fills the job of caretaker for the ice cemetery to be close to her own human body, a beautiful corpse she keeps in a glass coffin to pine for and worship. Desperate for human contact, she tries to claim an unwilling Tetsuro as her child, but Maetel fends her off. Maetel herself seems fascinated by something in the ice which Tetsuro doesn’t get to see. Here lurks the threat of frigid emotional stasis and a frightening surrogate mother figure who provides a distorting mirror to Maetel in the role.

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The gritty frontier atmosphere of Trader’s Fork reproduces a western feel and exploits that genre’s suppressed evocation of rootless melancholy to convey Tetsuro’s alienation as he encounters other characters, like the sad chanteuse Ryuzu (Noriko Ohara) and the real Tochirô (Kei Tomiyama), who share his state of exile and longing. Tetsuro gains a peculiar family in the form of ambiguous but devoted Maetel and the train’s crew of oddballs, and fearsome friends and comrades in the form of Harlock (Makio Inoue) and Emereldas (Reiko Tajima), who both intercept the Express and find their fates linked to Tetsuro’s. Antares has told Tetsuro that only Emereldas knows where Count Mecha’s wandering Time Castle can be found at any time, so when her spaceship flies by the Express Tetsuro brings it to a halt with a blast from his pistol and soon finds himself confronting the fearsome female pirate, who proves, despite all to be defined once more by a pining absence, longing for a lost lover who proves to be the sickly, dying Tochirô. Tetsuro finds Tochirô in the wastes of Trader’s Fork and helps him achieve his dying ambition, uploading his consciousness into a computer system so he can serve as the navigation system for his comrade Harlock’s space ship. Harlock turns up shortly after to thank Tetsuro for giving his friend’s mortal remains a burial, and repays the favour by beating up some of Count Mecha’s goons who have attacked Tetsuro.

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Tetsuro is the hero of Galaxy Express 999, but it’s Maetel who is its most obsessive locus of images and pivotal figure, and the ultimate example of Matsumoto’s obsessive figure of femininity. Her iconography is exact, with her cascading mane of blonde hair and huge, long, limpid eyes, and all-black garb of fur coat and cap, resembling some fey-gifted young Russian Countess riding the Trans-Siberian circa 1900, the centrepiece of the film’s uniquely Proustian take on sci-fi adventure. She’s dogged by an air of inexplicable melancholia, her mystique in seeming both infinitely enigmatic and yet deeply familiar embodying a half-forgotten ideal from childhood. Willowy and fragile-looking, she nonetheless constantly proves more powerful than she seems. She’s at war with her own identity in profound and disturbing ways, as it’s revealed she’s the daughter of Queen Promethium (Ryôko Kinomiya), the terrifying, witch-like mastermind and controller of the robot horde. A weirdly dichotomous charge wells up when Tetsuro accidentally walks in upon her in the shower, and Maetel comes to occupy a perverse Freudian nexus as, alternatively an echo of Tetsuro’s mother, avatar for a worldly big sister, and a dream of first love.

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This aspect makes Galaxy Express 999 feel crucially similar to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) in contending with the intensely protean experience of adolescence where the roles of life and the people who fill them blur into commonality. In the series Tetsuro was a small, naïve boy, where in the film he’s on the cusp of adolescence. It’s ultimately revealed that Maetel is actually inhabiting a cloned reproduction of Tetsuro’s mother’s body, which doubles down on the perversity. The other female characters – the wretched Shadow, haunted Ryuzu, sweetly transparent (literally) Claire, brooding, powerful Emereldas – all resemble her (aptly, in one of his revisits to his creation, Matsumoto revealed Maetel and Emereldas are twin sisters). This is certainly partly because of Matsumoto’s famous basic template for his romantic heroines, but it also makes perfect sense given they can all be seen as reflections or distillations of the essence of a cosmic feminine Tetsuro chases across the void but can never quite take a proper grip of as he matures. Tetsuro’s physique sharply contrasts his partner’s, a short urchin with a round face and squiggle of a nose, he almost becomes lost to the eye once he dons his complete signature costume, with overcoat and hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s in his Sergio Leone westerns.

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Tetsuro himself has many doppelgangers and brothers in spirit, from Harlock, who stands as an idealised version of the man he’d like to be, Tetsuro, whose boots he steps into, and Antares, the grizzled old warrior who’s taken on duty of care to a host of waifs with the same tragic story. The theme of life journey conjoins with Matsumoto’s anxious confrontation with the forces of modern transformation, which had gone through a breakneck process in his youth: the Galaxy Express itself belongs to an evocation of a pre-war world and dreams of gilt splendour as glimpsed in the retro classiness of the great railway station Tetsuro and Maetel pass through, even in the surrounds of the glittering superstructure of Megalopolis. The new and the old are in constant dialogue throughout, both in terms of physical entities and the gap between action and remembering. Tetsuro’s desperate desire to grow up and take on the evils in his universe is constantly retarded by a growing awareness of the ephemeral nature of his life. Maetel carries a device that allows one person to tap into the dreams of another, a sublime metaphor for the act of creating and sharing art itself, and also a vessel for mutual comprehension, or lack of it, for the characters: Tetsuro’s maturation is measured in part by his choice not to tap into Maetel’s dreams, for all his desire to parse her foreboding opacity.

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Matsumoto’s gleeful mix-and-match of ages and styles is even justified in terms of his tale’s internal logic as the characters are all desperate to locate themselves through clinging on to pieces of the past, to familiar and amusing things that subvert the impersonality of an oncoming state of total, alienated modernity, embodied by the robot people. The tavern full of toughs all weep in listening to Ryuzu’s song of longing for lost childhood. It’s not until they reach their destination in the Andromeda galaxy that they confront a shining, alien, inimical bastion of pure modernity that just so happens to look like any sleek new train station or airport, a setting equated with the loss of identity, physicality, and the pleasures of liminal existence. The robotised people Tetsuro encounters are all haunted by their loss of it, like Claire, who gained her crystal form to please her mother, or driven into utter hysteria, like Shadow, or completely lose humanity, like Count Mecha. Ryuzu testifies to abandoning her human body to please the count and eventually evolving into a spiritual force with power over time itself, but losing in the process all sense of tangible existence. The basic theme could be read Rintaro and Matsumoto’s next-generation burlesque on the comfortable power fantasy of Tezaku’s Astro Boy as well as mediating the post-human disquiet of arguably the most famous anime works, Akira (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995).

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Despite being produced on a relatively small budget, Galaxy Express 999 proved the biggest hit of the year at the Japanese box office upon release, a sea-change moment that coincided with Hayao Miyazaki’s debut on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro in announcing cinematic anime’s arrival as a potent cultural force. Miyazaki’s later films would often sport his particular brand of young heroine who combine the qualities of Tetsuro and Maetel. Galaxy Express 999 was soon taken up by New World Studios and became the first anime film in many years to be released in the US, albeit in a sharply truncated form. The animation style of the film is fairly limited because of the budget, and yet it’s a stream of visual pleasures, particularly the ecstatic sequence when the train takes off for the first time, Tetsuro’s enthralled perspective conjuring the sight of his mother in the stars set to a theme song provided by the band Godiego, best known for scoring the cult TV show Monkey; the band were experts at creating a sound at once carefree and wistful. There’s a strong echo of Yellow Submarine (1968) throughout, not just in the basic conceptual conceit but also in the evocations of a fantasy landscape built out of the detritus of a nostalgic perception of the world, a child’s vision of adult realms inflated and transmuted into the stuff of dreams.

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That quality is apparent in settings like the towering, cavernous halls of the Express’s railway station, and echoes on through the film’s visions of surreal splendour. Shots of the train speeding across the face of the Earth and amongst the stars and planets, and descending through the cloudy atmosphere of Titan. A Plutonic landscape of hazy grey clouds and hovering moons with thousands of human bodies locked in the ice. The abstract green sworls and winging snowflakes around Tetsuro and his mother as she dies, her hair shimmering in the wind, and the appearance of Count Mecha and his hunters with their single huge glowing eyes. The grotesque sight of Tetsuro’s mother’s body mounted and stuffed in Mecha’s banquet hall, in the midst of his faux-gothic castle. The stark, near-featureless faces of Shadow and Queen Promethium, whose dress is bedecked with stars and whose appearance most clearly echoes a figure out of Noh. When Tetsuro finally locates the Time Castle thanks to Emereldas, he sneaks into its halls and finds that Ryuzu is Mecha’s concubine and servant, and is promptly surrounded by the Count android guards. But Antares appears, having followed Tetsuro, and helps him annihilate Mecha’s guards and finally, heroically blows apart the shield Mecha and Ryuzu hide behind, whilst Ryuzu fatefully betrays Mecha by refusing to transport them in time, giving Tetsuro the chance to shoot the Count dead. Ryuzu grievingly strips down to her robotic body and lies with Mecha as he and his castle crumble into a rusty pile of scrap.

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Success against Mecha does not sate Tetsuro’s anger, however, as he now believes robotisation is a scourge destroying all that’s worthy about life. He resolves to travel on to the last stop on the Express’s route to the machine planet and destroy it to. But he’s in for a rude shock as he learns the name of the planet is the same as his travelling companion, and learns from the robots who meet him at the station that although he’s killed the robots’ hero Count Mecha, he’s nonetheless a very fit candidate to be turned into a cybernetic component of the planet’s vast machine complexes. Stung and betrayed, Tetsuro smacks Maetel and is strapped to an operating table under Promethium’s approving gaze. But Maetel’s own, ultimate purpose finally reveals itself: she carries with her an amulet device containing the stored consciousness of her father, who is appalled by what Promethium has become, and intends destroying the machine planet, having stored up an explosive lode of energy to do so. Harlock and Emereldas throw in their support, attacking the planet with their pirate vessels to give their comrades a chance. Maetel falters on the very precipice of destroying her mother’s empire, so Tetsuro has to help her throw the amulet into Promethium’s power supply, whereupon the planet begins to disintegrate. Maetel and Tetsuro manage to get back to the Express, but find Promethium has managed to get aboard too. Rather than let her kill Tetsuro, the only person she ever felt was truly her friend, Claire grabs the Queen and detonates her own robotic body, blowing both of them up. Tetsuro pockets the only piece of Claire remaining, a piece of crystal shaped like a teardrop.

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Maetel’s considered act of parricide, however necessary, cruelly mimics Tetsuro’s own orphaning, releasing them both from the obligations of identity but also now needing to reconstruct themselves: for Maetel this means recovering her original body. And of course, being as they are a pair who love each-other but who cannot reconcile it to any familiar life role, they’re doomed to never quite meet in any sense, and Maetel delivers Tetsuro back to Earth and leaves again on the Express after a jolting moment when she kisses him on the mouth. In a moment reminiscent of the finale of David Lean’s Summertime (1957), Tetsuro runs alongside the Express as it departs, with Maetel gazing back at him, becoming the ghost of all things lost in growing up. It’s one of cinema’s great tragic finales, so of course there had to be a sequel. Adieu, Galaxy Express: Final Stop Andromeda was released two years later. Far from releasing the galaxy from robotic domination, Tetsuro’s actions prove to have sparked all-out war between humans and mechanicals. Hordes of robots are laying waste to Megalopolis, and Tetsuro is now one of a ragged and weary band of resistance fighters cowering in the ruins. Tetsuro settles down in a muddy puddle in his disheartened and exhausted mindset, only for the old, tough commander of the unit to tell him he might as well be choosing death. One night whilst gazing up into the sky, Tetsuro sees the familiar glowing green squiggle that is the Express’s wake coiling through the sky, but no-one’s seen it land on Earth in ages.

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Nonetheless Tetsuro soon receives a device from a dying runner carrying a voice message from Maetel calling him to board the Express. The rest of his unit volunteer to help him get by the robot patrols to the station, at the cost of their lives: the old commander uses his dying breaths to make sure the Express can take off. Tetsuro soon finds, to his bewilderment, he’s the only passenger on the Express and that Maetel is not on board. The Conductor introduces him to Claire’s replacement, a robot maid named Metalmena (Yôko Asagami), who claims to have taken the job to get a chance to get hold of “the most precious thing in the universe.” The Express makes its first stop on the planet La-Metal, where the human settlers are battling the robots. Tetsuro is wounded by a flying robotic sentry and saved by a guerrilla unit, and he becomes friends with an alien warrior, Meowdar (Kei Tomiyama). The duo explore a ruined castle and find huge portraits hanging on the wall that look startlingly like Promethium and Maetel, and Meowdar tells Tetsuro the rumour abroad that Maetel has taken her mother’s place as controller of the empire. Tetsuro is so enraged by this notion he slogs Meowdar. The two are almost captured in a robot ambush, but the appearance of Harlock’s ship helps them escape. Parting as friends, Meowdar leaves Tetsuro at the La-Metal station, where Maetel appears, striding out of the steam plumes, entirely unchanged.

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It’s not explained why Maetel never recovered her body and with the portrait on the castle suggesting she’s always looked this way, the cloned body idea seems to have been dropped (pedantic consistency of detail was never something Matsumoto’s properties have been famous for anyway). Tetsuro is joyous upon seeing Maetel again, but becomes increasingly perplexed and aggravated as she fends off his questions and encourages him to leave the Express. The train has strange encounters with other vessels. A craft the Conductor calls the Ghost Train bullies its way past the Express, much to the engine’s shame and chagrin. A spaceship commanded by a menacing cyborg calling himself Lord Faust (Tôru Emori), who seems to have a specific interest in Tetsuro comes next. Maetel almost gets herself killed leaping between the two when Tetsuro tries to shoot Faust, and his spaceship explodes from damage Tetsuro’s gun makes. Tetsuro makes it aboard the Express and Maetel is plucked on the edge of death from space by Emereldas, turning up in the nick of time. During a stopover on the heavily industrialised planet of Mosaic, Tetsuro sees the Ghost Train parked and thinks he hears the sound of a music box belonging to Meowdar, but he can’t break into the menacing craft. Maetel finally reveals that she didn’t send the message that brought Tetsuroi aboard the Express, and someone wants him to come to the true capital of the Machine Empire, Great Andromeda. Soon enough the Express gets there and Tetsuro learns that Meowdar wasn’t wrong: Maetel really has returned to take her mother’s place as queen, and Promethium’s remnant consciousness is still sustained as part of the planet infrastructure.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express is darker and punchier in many respects than its predecessor, kicking off with scenes of grimy warfare and cyberpunk terror that sharply anticipate oncoming preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery in much acclaimed ‘80s and ‘90s anime. The plot leads into a revelation that evokes Soylent Green (1972) as well as carrying strong holocaust connotations as Tetsuro learns that the energy pills the robot people take to sustain themselves contains life force drained out of captured humans, ferried to Great Andromeda on the Ghost Train. The film also displays increased directorial ambition from Rintaro working with crisper, more fluid and confident animation, apparent in an emphasis on dreamlike ellipses like the fades in and out of black interspersing the credits with the opening scenes and flashing, mono-colour backgrounds the envelope Tetsuro in moments of pain and crisis, and some cleverly animated battle sequences, including a nod to North by Northwest (1959) as Tetsuro is pursued by a flying robot sentinel. The Express’s arrival at Great Andromeda, passing through barriers of time, space, and energy, becomes a dazzling psychedelic interlude, particularly well-scored by electropop artist Osamu Shoji. Both films are marvellously scored at that, the first replete with syrupy beauty by Nozomi Aoki and the second with Shoji’s spacier synthesiser strains.

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But Adieu, Galaxy Express noticeably lacks the sense of poetic metaphor that made the first film so striking, and wields a more generic edge to its animation concepts at times. The absence of Ichikawa’s input on the sequel tells, and the plot essentially boils down to a retread of the original’s, with appearances by the likes of Harlock and Emereldas feeling like afterthoughts. The best call-back is the most minimal, as Tetsuro catches a glimpse of Shadow still watching over her frozen charges in silent pathos. Maetel doesn’t turn up for a good fifty minutes, which means the film lacks its obsessive pole to Tetsuro’s for too long. Still, it’s just as desperately romantic and outsized in its evocations of dire emotional straits, becoming particularly gruelling as Meowdar and Metalmena die, and offers up moments of deliriously transformed emotionalism like Harlock’s mouthless female alien crewmember weeping spherical, crystal tears. Rintaro offers ideas reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) in his portrayal of a malign mother punishing a hostile world and following a relentless quest for power ever since she and an infant Maetel were exiled from their home on La-Metal, a tragedy suggested as in Bava through portraits on the walls of a ruined castle. High gothic paraphernalia and technological Gotterdammerung collide as Maetel once more confronts her mother and steps into her shoes – if only, as it proves, to access a sanctum and find out the truth behind the fate of the human captives. Metalmena’s object of desire proves to be Maetel’s body itself, hoping to transfer her consciousness into it, but learning just where the power capsules she likes consuming come from drives Metalmena to attack some of the robot guards, getting herself terribly wounded but earning Tetsuro’s admiration.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express also goes memorably for broke in a spectacular finale when an even more formidable threat than Prometheum and the mechanical empire appears, a force dubbed Siren the Witch, an all-consuming cosmic void attracted by the wealth of energy on Great Andromeda. As Siren begins sucking in everything in its path, the crews of the Express and the pirate ships have to try and make headway whilst not using their computer systems or other sophisticated machinery, which means for the Express quite literally driving its engine with coal in the boiler. Meanwhile Tetsuro has to duel the looming Faust upon the train roof, trying to use the lesson he learnt for Meowdar about listening for robotic enemies rather than looking for them. Tetsuro wins the duel, only for Faust to reveal, as he drifts off into Siren’s maw, that he’s Tetsuro’s long-lost father: it was he who arranged Tetsuro’s journey so they could fight out the basic battles between human and mechanical, old and young. There’s such wild spectacle here, with an undercurrent thrusting the material back into the correct zone of Oedipal frenzy, that it makes up for the feeling of déjà vu, and also suggesting the ultimate irony that a Matsumoto property was suddenly in debt to George Lucas rather than vice versa.

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A bittersweet coda beholds the wastes of Great Andromeda, reduced to the frozen asteroid it was originally, the ghost of Prometheum’s consciousness still clinging to it in delirious longing for her daughter’s touch, who stands upon the planetoid with Tetsuro regarding the waste. The most interesting, tantalising, painful idea constantly repeated throughout the two films is the awareness that gaining anything, from victory over evil to achieving maturity, usually requires losing something just as vital, and to exist means being gnawed at eternally by that sense of loss. Inevitably, Maetel parts from Tetsuro once more, now with the stated awareness that she’s a wanderer in time whose job it is to help other boys grow up, and Tetsuro’s last wail of her name from the departing Express still carries with it the charge of loss even as a final title declares he’s become a man at last. Anime has grown a lot as a school of cinema since these films, but they stand as estimable, defining classics in the style. Mainstream worldwide cinema perhaps owes them a debt both immediate and through their influence on the mode – would the filthy, glistening world of Blade Runner (1982) exist otherwise, or the fierce images of human softness in the clutches of robotic hellspawn in The Matrix films, the poetics of Wong Kar-Wai (his 2046, 2004, borrows a lot from the Galaxy Express 999 concept as well its obsession with the ephemeral, and his The Grandmaster, 2013, references it in a key scene), or even perhaps the “King of the World” scene in Titanic (1997)? At any rate they’re marvellous lodestones for the gregarious pleasures of anime, and at their best attain that rarest of conditions for popular art, the feeling that they’ve cleaved off and kept safe a piece of a collective unconscious, like that shard of Claire’s heart Tetsuro keeps in his pocket.

An English-language dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999 can be viewed here

…and the sequel, Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda here.

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2010s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Musical, Scifi

The Shape of Water (2017)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro

By Roderick Heath

Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.
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Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.
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In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.
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Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.
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The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.
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As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.
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The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a postgenre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.
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One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.
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Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ’50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.
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Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.
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There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.
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There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’s Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’s film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.
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Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).
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Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.

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1940s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) / The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

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Directors: Christy Cabanne, Harold Young, Reginald LeBorg, Leslie Goodwins

By Roderick Heath

Karl Freund’s legendary film The Mummy (1932) presented its title entity, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, as a sorcerer and antihero defying time and the gods to wield vast magical power. More recent filmmakers like Stephen Sommers and Alex Kurtzman have taken up this idea for the sake of spectacle and drama better fitting the age of the special effects-driven blockbuster. But I’d be willing to bet good money most people, when they think of the mummy as movie monster, probably instead think of a lurching, ghastly, sluggishly advancing yet relentless engine of murder, swathed in grave wrappings. For the source of this image of the mummy, we must look instead to the four films Universal Studios made about the mummy Kharis. For lovers of vintage horror movies, the Kharis films remain an evergreen trove. Not because they’re deep masterpieces of gothic poetry, richly composed metaphor, or galvanising terror – indeed, part of their appeal is that they’re patently none of these things, or, at least, only offer such qualities as small, shiny gems amidst a whole lot of entertaining ore. They’re lovable relics of an era of filmmaking and a brand of horror that retains a modest brand of charisma, deft ideograms compressing all the freewheeling energy and craftsmanship of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Somehow, the Kharis films manage to incorporate all the major motifs and stylistic quirks of the Universal school within their brief, zippy, unpretentious duration. They’re the sort of movies you see as a kid and love, and see again as an adult and still love, even if they can no longer compel in the same way.

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Each movie in the series is barely an hour long, as quintessential B movie features, made to support other, more ambitious but often less well-remembered movies. All four were made by the smithies of Hollywood film. Only one of these directors, Reginald LeBorg, can be described as any kind of familiar hand in horror cinema, whilst all four handled many a diverse genre in their long, factory-line careers. Christy Cabanne, who helmed the series opener The Mummy’s Hand, had been making movies since 1912. And yet the Kharis films testify to the peculiar integrity of the Universal horror mode, as well as the problems that would eventually choke off their brand. In spite of being cheaply produced, the Kharis films all display the technical resources and effortless class of Universal’s production teams and their gifts for quickly and smartly constructing little, cordoned universes where the shadows are deep and black and things move in the night that should not be moving at all. Universal had a particularly effective ethos when it came to making its B movies, also evinced by the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. These films, although very often tacky and repetitious, usually had solid writing and a template for atmospheric visuals that could be easily applied by different production teams. The limitations to their strict hour-and-a-bit running times were as usually sharp as the advantages: too many stories develop fruitfully over about 50 minutes and then suddenly careen to a close. This is true of the Kharis films as well.

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The series was doggedly popular in its day regardless, at a time when their cheery, restrained approach to generating a healthy frisson stood in stark contrast to the harsh facts of wartime. The Mummy’s Hand gave the waning Universal horror brand a shot in the arm, whilst also laying down a template most of the entries the studio would purvey over the next six years until running out of steam again, in dispensing with most of the outsized Expressionistic effects in sets and lighting and rendering their attendant themes of tragic stature far more muted, if not entirely jettisoned. The series also accidentally helped point the way forward for the horror genre as a whole, in a manner that unfolds over the four instalments, which begins rooted in the mystique of foreign threat and exotic nightmares welling out of a distant, mythical past, but soon shifts ground to portray murderous forces at large in the balmy eves of the good old USA. The Mummy’s Hand introduces the lore and legend of Kharis (played in the first instalment by Tom Tyler), a former high priest under the Pharaoh Amenophis, who fell in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter Ananka. Following Ananka’s early death, Kharis attempted to revive her by stealing a supply of the sacred, long-extinct herb known as the tana leaf, with its mystic qualities for restoring and sustaining life. Caught in the act, Kharis had his tongue cut out before burial alive, doomed to spend eternity serving as protector of Ananka’s tomb. This story is recounted by the wizened and decrepit High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) of a sect called the Priests of Karnak, who still subsist within modern Egypt and have dedicated themselves to protecting Ananka’s undiscovered tomb above all.

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The High Priest is visited by his anointed successor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), an archaeologist who uses his position as a respected figure in his field to either fend off other Egyptologists venturing into Arkam, the area where their temple and Ananka’s and Kharis’s tombs are all located, or else arrange their mysterious disappearance. The High Priest explains to Andoheb his essential duties, of which the most vital is sustaining Kharis’s heartbeat by stewing three tana leaves each night of the full moon and feeding it to him. Whenever Ananka’s tomb is threatened and interlopers dare to violate her sacred surrounds, the Priests revive Kharis by feeding him the the juice of nine leaves, sufficient to get him up and walking around, able to kill and overpower any mere mortal. Once the High Priest finishes his exposition, he gratefully settles upon his throne and dies. In this opening, the basics of the Kharis series are sketched out, and all four films revolve around these legendary details, carried over from episode to episode as essential as a superhero’s back story. One detail mentioned here, constantly teased but never fulfilled in the series, are the dire results of what might happen if Kharis is fed more than nine tana leaves, as a greater dose of the mystic herb would render him a rampaging monster. The Priests of Karnak merely keep him alive as a useful tool.

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The first film depicts the discovery of Ananka’s tomb by a gang of footloose Americans. Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pal, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), have come to Egypt when Steve is hunting for a new career break after being fired from the Scripps Museum, in spite of a string of impressive discoveries. Babe is itching to get back to the States, but Steve finds a damaged urn that seems to depict directions to Ananka’s tomb in a bazaar. Steve takes the urn to another esteemed man of the field, Dr Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him it is genuine. But Andoheb, who is Petrie’s boss at the Cairo Museum, dismisses the relic as a fake and contrives to drop it, whilst refusing the stake an expedition to the site indicated. Not dissuaded, Steve and Babe get backing from a good-natured nightclub magician, ‘The Great’ Solvani (Cecil Kellaway). Andoheb tries to foil this recourse by approaching Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) and warning her about conmen trying to sucker her father. Marta threatens Steve and Babe with the revolver she uses for trick shooting in her father’s shows, and she resolves to accompany her father on the expedition to make sure he’s not being robbed.

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It takes quite a while until The Mummy’s Hand gets out into the Egyptian wilds, an aspect that betrays a certain level of uncertainty about what level to pitch the movie on. An inordinate amount of screen time is soaked up by Ford and Kellaway’s comedy, although both men were accomplished farceurs and they’re fun to watch. The real pleasure of The Mummy’s Hand, however, comes once it gets going properly and changes scene to the desert. Here Babe accidentally uncovers Kharis’s tomb when he prematurely sets off a dynamite charge, just after the bodies of some of the expedition’s ill-fated predecessors are uncovered by the Egyptian diggers. The archaeologists are astounded to find Kharis’ remarkably preserved body in his casket, but the diggers flee in fear as the black legends about the area seem to be coming true. Meanwhile Andoheb and his agent, a fake marketplace beggar (Sig Arno), keep watch over the camp and when the time comes, Andoheb surprises Petrie alone in the tomb, and feeds tana juice to the mummy, bringing Kharis fully to life. At Andoheb’s behest, the fiend strangles Petrie, the expedition’s chief porter Ali (Leon Belasco), and Solvani during one long night of terror. Soon Andoheb is tempted by beauty and has Kharis kidnap Marta, forcing Steve and Babe to hunt for her. Following Marta’s own theory based on Steve’s urn, Steve finds a secret passage linking Kharis’ tomb to the priests’ temple, and ventures along it.

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The Mummy’s Hand is an object lesson in how old Hollywood could conjure something substantial out of virtually nothing. The budget was a preposterously low $80,000 dollars, and the running time is filled out with interpolated scenes from the Freund film depicting Kharis’ disgrace and doom, spliced with new footage of western star Tyler, who, in addition to his suitably strong stature, looked enough like Karloff to sustain the illusion. Smart use was also made of a set left over from the production of Frankenstein (1931) auteur James Whale’s jungle adventure Green Hell (1939) to fill in for the temple. The script also bears traces of such repurposing, as it offers a slight variation on the famous “Children of the Night” line from Dracula (1931). Otherwise the film relies almost entirely on Cabanne’s long-honed filmmaking skills to make the best of minimal sets, transforming the one, basic soundstage set depicting a crook of the desert abutting a mountain into a fantasy landscape flooded with shadow, occasionally punctuated by the bloodcurdling sight of the mummy’s silhouetted form looming through tent canvas over unsuspecting, sleeping victims.

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Part of the success and entertainment factor of The Mummy’s Hand lies in its straightforward blend of gothic business, with the free-and-easy tone of an adventure movie. It’s probably one of the many influences on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, portraying archaeology as a kind of puzzle work as the characters utilise keys gleaned from relics to open up ancient tombs. The mummy, although blessed with a tragic backstory, is offered mostly as a threatening spectre, a spooky threat lurching in and out of the shadows, informed with character only via Tyler’s eyes, showing flashes of fretful, desperate hunger for the tana leaves that sustain his existence. Foran is charming and stalwart, Moran is cute and plucky, at least until the compulsory finale where she swoons to be carried about by Kharis. The film careens through a last reel in which Babe shoots down Andoheb when the priest threatens him, and Steve enters the temple, frees Marta, and sets fire to Kharis when he stoops to try and lick up a pool of spilt tana juice.

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Mummy stories belong to a motif common in storytelling date back to Victorian-era fiction and the vicissitudes of the high colonial days, in fare ranging from a mystery tale like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to tales of the supernatural like The Monkey’s Paw. Such stories revolved around the dread fate awaiting those who monkey about with sacred objects of other cultures, and hinged upon western anxieties in the face of contending with those cultures, both warning about the necessity of respecting those cultures whilst also reinforcing the necessity of stoic detachment in the coloniser over the colonised. The Kharis series reframes this subtext to a certain extent whilst also making it more overt, for the series revolves around the clash between the forces of the old world and the new, the echoing memory of millennia of instilled cultural identity as represented by the powers of Ancient Egypt, and the new wind of Americanism starting to blow about the world. There’s an element of absurd but revealing racial profiling, too, as just about anyone who wears a fez is quickly outed as a supporter of an esoteric and murderous death cult. This aspect is often conjoined with finales in which mobs of the citizenry come out with fiery torches to hunt down the monsters. When Frankenstein had offered this trope, it had come as a criticism of the lynch mob mentality. By 1942, it had evolved into a heroic event, based on around communal guarding against threatening foreign invaders.

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But there’s also a theme to the series invoking a schism of faith and desire, identity and yearning. Steve and the spirit he represents is at once passionate about the arcana he digs up but also detached from the spiritual world it represents, the deep wellsprings of other cultural precepts. The Priests of Karnak, including Andoheb and successors Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), Yousef Bey (John Carradine), Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and his disciple Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), are beset by the same diverging desires as Kharis himself. That’s the schism between fulfilling their creed, which revolves around the literal worship of the dead and valuing of them above the living, and embracing their sensual needs, inevitably represented by the young women who fall into their clutches. This pays off in images close to those popular on pulp magazine covers of the time, heroines strapped to altars, threatened with phallic intrusion as the fallen priests threaten them with injections of tana fluid to make them immortal, with the priests intending to join them for an unending life of erotic pleasure.

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Quickly and inevitably, Kharis, embodiment of the past’s insidious persistence in the presence of all modernity’s glaring light, is brought to American shores, to haunt the outer precincts a modern land lacking much consciousness of such a deep past. The Mummy’s Tomb, the second episode, easily manages this change of scene, whilst also introducing some peculiar aspects to the series. Although The Mummy’s Hand was demonstrably contemporary if the clothes the characters wore were anything to go by, the sequel is set thirty years after the first film, but again seems entirely contemporary to 1942, to the extent of one character receiving a commission during the film. The fourth film is set twenty years after the third, which means over a half-century passes in the course of the series, making it a science fiction tale of sorts. The Mummy’s Tomb also anticipates aspects of modern franchise cinema, as it brings back Steve and Babe, now thirty years older, but with the brutal intention of killing them both off. Steve is now reclining in happy retirement after Marta’s death, living with his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), recounting his old adventures to his indulgently disbelieving doctor son John (John Hubbard) and his girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox).

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Turns out Andoheb survived the bullets Babe filled him with, and that Kharis was only lightly singed by fire. Andoheb, now old himself and palsied (a great touch from Zucco), still lurks in the old Arkam temple, handing over responsibility to Mehemet Bey, his successor, with the assignment of taking Kharis to America so he can kill the Banning clan in punishment for plundering Ananka’s tomb. Mehemet secures a job as caretaker of the cemetery of Mapleton, the small New England town where Steve has retired. He sends out Kharis, who strangles Steve in his house. The following night, the mummy does the same to Jane. Babe comes to town to attend their funerals and recognises the tell-tale mark of mould upon the victims’ necks as mould from Kharis’ bandages (“A greyish mark…a greyish mark!”). Babe fails to make the police listen to his warnings so he feeds the story to some interested newspaper men, but soon finds himself cornered in an alley by Kharis and killed. An academic researcher, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), certifies from a scrap of bandage John finds that there really is a living mummy on the loose. Mehemet, unable to suppress lecherous designs upon Isobel after glimpsing her in the woods with John, has Kharis snatch her out of her bed. When the Mapleton sheriff (Cliff Clark) organises a posse, he’s alerted to the presence of the Egyptian at the cemetery. Mehemet tries to stab John and gets a bullet in his gut for his pains. Kharis seems to be burned up along with the Banning house when he’s driven there, Isobel is rescued, and all ends well.

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The Mummy’s Tomb is the most sketchily written and disposable entry in the series, bumping off the likeable protagonists of the first film with a remarkable lack of compunction. The film kicks off laboriously with nearly ten minutes’ worth of flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand to pad out an exceptionally simple storyline. But it’s still entirely enjoyable, in part for reasons that feel mildly consequential in horror cinema history. This episode was directed by Harold Young, who surely had the best movie to his credit of any of the series captains, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and there are flashes of the spacious, lushly lit, carefully pictorial style he brought to that film here and here. Shots late in the film of Kharis carrying Isobel through the night are often reproduced in books of genre history, and for good reason: they retain an iconic form of beauty and encapsulation of the mystique of swooning, silk-draped femininity in the clutches of a septic, perambulating id. Transposing Kharis into the leafy, pacific environs of Mapleton allows this exotic monster, avatar of cultural and religious unease, to lurch about in quaint, very normal surrounds. Kharis keeps perturbing the perfectly ordinary New Englanders, be they couples in their beds or young mashers parked in their cars, as his shadow falls upon them and each feels the discomforting sensation of death passing them by.

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Whilst this was hardly the first horror film set in a modern western setting, I can’t really think of a precursor that utilised such quotidian environs, and Young’s visuals, emphasising Kharis melting in and out of the shadows in humdrum streets and semi-rural surrounds, capture a quality that would pass on through ‘50s sci-fi works like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Blob (both 1958) and then back into horror movies as diverse as Halloween (1978) and the works of artists as diverse as Stephen King and David Lynch, in placing a malevolent force in the midst of suburbia, a portal of pure surrealism astride the banal. The film is also fleshed out by the Austrian-Turkish actor Bey’s fascinating presence. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern heritage to gain any prominence as a Hollywood actor in the day, Bey’s dashing, matinee star looks and ability to project an air of silken menace make for a rare combination in this sort of thing. Bey reportedly liked the role best amongst his performances, and he plays Mehemet less as a glowing-eyed fanatic than as a meditatively religious being willing to do what it takes to restore a key tenant of his faith, but brought down in the end by his inability to suppress his sensual self.

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Another significant introduction for this entrance came in Kharis himself. Tyler had been replaced by Lon Chaney Jnr, who had become a fully-fledged horror star in the previous year’s The Wolf Man, and Universal sought to capitalise by casting him across the full roster of their familiar monsters – he would also play Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. The irony of this is that, at least at first, Chaney makes much less impression in the role than Tyler managed, as his Kharis isn’t allowed even to show the character in the eyes that Tyler could. That said, what could be the first real moment of proper characterisation for Kharis arrives here, as the mummy retreats fretfully whilst Mehemet tells him of his plans to mate with and impregnate Isobel: Kharis’ memory of the terrible wrath of force beyond in the face of such blasphemous acts is strong enough to momentarily make this zombified remnant cringe in fear. The Mummy’s Ghost, the third series instalment, saw directing duties taken over by former Max Reinhardt assistant LeBorg. LeBorg had already directed Chaney in a neat little chiller, Weird Woman (1944), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great black magic tale Conjure Wife, and would occasionally return to the genre over the next twenty years, including for the interesting Diary of a Madman (1963). LeBorg’s background with Reinhardt and European sensibility apparently familiar with the Germanic imaginative world of the liebestod might explain why his entry emerges as the oddest and most intriguing of the quartet.

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Whilst not violating the already well-settled series formula until its final few minutes, The Mummy’s Ghost is the first entry to make itself more explicitly about Kharis’s search for Ananka, and also needs no flashbacks to pad out its crisp, well-developed storyline. In an ingenious little vignette, Kharis, after breaking into the Scripps Museum where her body and other artefacts are collected, attempts to touch her bandage-wrapped form, only for her mummy to disintegrate into dust. Meanwhile, miles away, a young woman, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), awakens with a cry in her room, having felt the touch of the mummy: Ananka’s spirit now inhabits her body, as a distant descendant. Amina is attending college in Mapleton, and her boyfriend Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) is a student of Professor Norman. Norman likes to regale his students with tales of the mummy that terrorised the town a few years before. Norman himself is still trying crack the secret of the artefacts and specimens of the tana leaf retrieved from Mehemet’s possession. Finally translating some inscriptions and boiling up nine tana leaves, Norman is shocked to see Kharis burst his way into his rooms. Kharis, after lying dormant since the fire, has been revived by the scent of the tana juice, and he kills Norman before drinking it. Amina, drawn out in a somnambulant daze by Kharis’ presence, collapses near the scene. Meanwhile Andoheb dispatches another acolyte, Yousef Bey, to America to track down Kharis. Yousef attempts to lead Kharis in recovering Ananka so they can both be transported back to Egypt, but realisation that Ananka is now living within Amina leads them to track and kidnap her.

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If the guiding tension of the series is between the inflexibly arcane and the blithely, obliviously modern, then the figuration of Amina/Ananka is a clever new dimension for it, affectingly embodied by Ames. Amina carries inscribed in her genes and spiritual heritage the memory of a land stretching back to the dawn of human kind, inhabiting the spry, clean-cut environs of the college and her American lifestyle like a suit of easily discarded clothes. Unease about the possibility of an interracial marriage is mediated through the prism of Amina’s anxiety that her identity, bound up with her strange fits of detachment and sense of living in two different times and worlds. LeBorg makes atmospheric use of the old, abandoned mine where Yousef operates from, the modern, industrial equivalent to the tombs and temples of Egypt, equally desolate and deserted and forsaken by the ways of men, equally cyclopean in the scale of both construction and ruination. Here Yousef, once he actually has Amina in his grasp, again succumbs to the desire to possess her. This time however, knowing that Amina is really his beloved, Kharis rebels, throwing off the yoke of the priests and hurling Yousef from a great height to his death. After he fends off an attack by Tom, Kharis carries Amina off into the countryside. Since her first meeting with the mummy, Amina’s hair has become increasingly streaked with coils of white, and now in his arms turns swiftly into an ancient, parched, white-crowned mummy. Tom and another posse, this time led by canny New York detective Walgreen (Barton MacLane), give chase, only to see the benighted duo of ruined creatures sink into a swamp.

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This coda blends truly odd romanticism and faint but definite morbid sexuality with heartbreak, as Tim and his pet dog are left staring into the black waters where Kharis and Amina vanished. It’s a forlorn ending, an overtone new to this series, although it does revive the spirit that had been central to Freund’s film and the first wave of Universal horror films in general. Chaney’s casting in the role, which seemed so negligible on The Mummy’s Tomb, also proves worthier in The Mummy’s Ghost, as Chaney wields enough expressive intensity in body language to charge Kharis with a deep and implacable will, his stumbling, grasping forward motion achieving a sense of the genuinely remorseless to his wanderings and killings, fingers curling and limbs twitching when victims give him the slip. The last episode in the series, The Mummy’s Curse, is the first to offer a jarring lapse with established continuity rather than merely bending it. Somehow the chase witnessed at the end of the previous movement covered a few thousand miles, for now Kharis and Amina supposedly last vanished into a Louisiana bayou. That said, the shift in locale is mined for all the magnificently corny atmosphere and Cajun accents director Leslie Goodwins could muster.

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Years after Kharis and Ananka vanished, a new federal operation is underway to drain, clear, and build a road through the same swamp, stirring the disquiet of locals who have kept the memory of the mummy and his bride alive. Two archaeologists, Zandaab and James Halsey (Dennis Moore), arrive with official permission to dig for the two mummies, to the irritation of the project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and the intrigue of his daughter and secretary Betty (Kay Harding). Zandaab is of course the latest of the Priests of Karnak (by this point in the series always called the Priests of Arkam), and he has an acolyte, Ragheb, posing as one of the road workers, stirring up fright amongst them and stabbing the occasional busybody as he searches for Kharis. Ragheb does locate the mummy, and stashes him in a ruined nearby monastery, but Ananka remains missing. Until, that is, an excavator partly uncovers Ananka (now played by Virginia Christine). Digging her way out of the ground and stumbling through the swamp, she’s picked up by Halsey and Betty on their way back from a date. Apparently without any memory of either of her previous lives, the worker camp’s doctor Cooper (Holmes Herbert) diagnoses her as amnesiac, and encourages Halsey to use her an assistant to keep her occupied. Ananka proves to have intensive knowledge of archaeology and Egyptology without any idea where it came from, but when she attracts the attention of Zandaab, the priest recognises her as the princess, and sends Kharis out to hunt her down.

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Although not quite as intricately lit and decorously framed as The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse is nonetheless the most visually engaging episode in the series, as the setting allows Goodwins to exploit that mist-riddled foliage of the bayous and rough-hewn rural buildings, and generate some proper creepiness, in a manner looks forward to the later phase of regionally-made and set horror movies. One scene stands as legitimately unsettling in a manner virtually nothing else from the Universal horror cycle can match today, in which Ananka and Cooper listen to the sound of Kharis approaching, a mere scuffling sound that portends the arrival of a force that refuses all reason and annihilates anything that stands in its path. Cooper steps through the tent flaps to behold something from the back corners of a nightmare looming out of the dark. Several scenes take place around a cafe run by Cajun chanteuse Tante Bertha (Ann Codee) and her diminutive husband Achilles (Charles Stevens), a zone where a fecund folk culture and old-world atmosphere still subsist even as the labours of the work crew pierces and cleanses the fetid reaches of the swamp.

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The ruined monastery is a floating world of crumbling delight, thrust up over the swamp on a rise, crumbled walls and roof again mimicking the ruins of Egypt. Here Zandaab and Ragheb set up base but first have to contend with a zany local (William Farnum) who is the “self-appointed caretaker” of this monastery, demanding the duo and their pagan paraphernalia depart instantly, obliging Kharis to strangle him. Ananka, when she first sees Zandaab, seems to recognise him as a fellow, approaching him in a daze and striking a pose with hands jutting from the sides of her hips, a gesture suggesting the subsistence of an ancient and mysterious creed. The film’s best scene, and perhaps the most arresting in the series, is Ananka’s revival: first seen as a clay-smeared hand thrust out of the soil, followed quickly by the rest of her, Ananka sheds the earth (and her mummified appearance) as she gropes her way through the trees, following the glow of the sun, rejoicing in the heat as it bakes dry the mud on her and restores her life as a descendant of the sun god.

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This moment has a genuine charge of the strange and numinous, imbued in part through Christine’s excellent physicality in this scene, worthy of comparison in its way with Boris Karloff’s work as Frankenstein’s Monster for conveying the idea of flesh and bone reanimated against all will and sense, but finding a balm in the glow of the sun as it feeds her and restores her. Christine proves the most interesting of the lovely young ingénues Universal placed in the series (except for future The Big Sleep star Martha Vickers, although she only appears for a very few moments in The Mummy’s Ghost). The only real problem with this entry is a lack of any more new ideas, sending Kharis around the block a few times for more random strangulations. The theme of lechery amongst the Priests is palmed off onto Ragheb, who kidnaps Betty in his desire to make her his immortal bride, and when Zandaab censures him, Ragheb stabs him, stirring the wrath of Kharis.

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The filmmakers seem to have been aware this was likely to be the last entry, so at least the ending works to bring a proper close to the series. But it does so in a way that lacks much thrill: Ananka is finally, rather lamely dosed with tana fluid and restored to a mummified state, whilst Kharis is buried under a pile of rubble when trying to kill Ragheb, who is also killed, ending the line of priests and all who know the secret of the tana leaves. It’s worth noting the series’ consistent stylistic feature: Frank Skinner’s endlessly repeated musical themes, most of them written for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and slightly adapted, constantly throbbing and surging on the soundtrack like an erratic heartbeat. The Kharis films never quite capitalised on the wealth of potential encoded in their fascinatingly specific and rich trove of folkloric detail and recurring detail, and the dark fantasies of love through the ages and twisted eroticism that slide inkily through its bloodstream. To a certain extent, Terence Fisher would draw these out more in his concatenated remake, The Mummy (1959). But the Kharis series, once again, is one you love for what it is.

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1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Erotic, Fantasy, French cinema, Romance

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

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Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

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One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

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From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

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The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

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Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

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Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

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Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

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Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

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One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

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The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

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Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

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It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

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And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

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Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

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Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Erotic, Fantasy, Historical, Italian cinema

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
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Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
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Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
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Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
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Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
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Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
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The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
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Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
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Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
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Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
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And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
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Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
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One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
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In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
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The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
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Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
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Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence.

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Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.

 

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